The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Advancement of Investor-State Regimes
By: Jessica Rose
On October 5th of this year, the United States and eleven other nations in the Pacific Rim concluded negotiations on the largest regional trade agreement in history – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the “TPP”). While the finalized version of the text has yet to be released, an outline of the agreement by the office of the United States Trade Representative includes an investment chapter that places the TPP squarely within the tradition of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) regimes. According to the outline, the TPP will include rules on expropriation and “provisions for expeditious, fair, and transparent investor-State dispute settlement subject to appropriate safeguards … [that] will protect the rights of the TPP countries to regulate in the public interest.”
The conclusion of TPP negotiations coincides with a significant but little-remarked event in the history of ISDS. A recent skirmish in August between foreign investors and the Polish Parliament suggests that foreign investors have found ways to use investor-state laws to influence governments even before those governments enact legislation, calling into question the right of TPP governments to “regulate in the public interest.”
The Background: Investor-State Dispute Settlement
ISDS treaties are designed to encourage the flow of investment, usually from developed to developing countries. One of the ways that these treaties try to attract foreign investment is by giving foreign investors, usually multinational corporations (“MNCs”), a mechanism to challenge the behavior of host states when that behavior negatively affects the value of their investment. MNCs can sue host governments through private arbitration – a system where ad hoc arbitrators, who are private citizens, act as judges. These arbitrators decide whether or not the host state’s behavior was sufficiently unfair to constitute expropriation– effectively taking the investor’s property. If so, the state must then compensate the MNC for its losses. In order to accommodate a range of claims against host governments, usually the ISDS regime will loosen the meaning of “expropriation” with words such as “tantamount to,” as in Chapter Eleven of North American Free Trade Agreement.
What does this look like in practice? In March of this year, an arbitration panel awarded Owens-Illinois Inc., an American MNC, $455 million because Venezuela, its host country, seized two of its glass-bottle plants back in 2010. This award is of the less-controversial variety, as Hugo Chavez spent much of his tenure nationalizing a significant portion of Venezuela’s economy. In cases like this, there are few concerns that a foreign investor was unfairly leveraging their powers under the ISDS regime to punish the host state for legitimate governing behaviour.
Why is ISDS controversial?
Objections to “interference” by foreign investors in the governance of host states are, however, common, because most ISDS regimes allow investors to object even if the action of a host state only indirectly affects the value of an MNC’s investment. Much discussion has focused on foreign investors’ ability to abuse that power.
For example, Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party, has repeatedly voiced objections to ISDS agreements Canada has entered into on this basis. She argues that governments are likely to avoid passing laws if they think a foreign investor will object on the basis that that law interferes with their investment. She says it is difficult to accurately assess the extent to which this “regulatory chill” is operating to shift the course of government action, since it probably comes up before proposed regulation even makes it into parliaments or congresses.
Quantitative research performed in 2014 analyzed empirical evidence to conclude that such regulatory chill is not, in fact, occurring. However, a political skirmish in Poland suggests that this conclusion may have been reached prematurely.
What Happened in Poland
On August 5th of this year, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament adopted a draft law on the restructuring of consumer mortgage loans denominated in foreign currency. The law mandated conversion of foreign currency mortgage loans into Polish zlotys at the exchange rate on the day of the granting of the loan. Banks were to bear 90% of the restructuring costs imposed by this law. Predictions about the net loss to the banking sector were estimated at five billion euro.
Before the higher chamber of parliament in Poland voted on the law, however, several foreign banks controlling the major Polish banks whose business would be affected by the law started a letter-writing campaign. Their message to Polish governmental authorities was that they would be bringing claims under the applicable ISDS treaty if the government voted the proposed bill into law. The Senate changed the loan restructuring terms by reducing the banks’ share of the costs to 50%. The law has since been sent back to the lower chamber of Parliament, where it may be completely retooled so as not to place any direct restructuring costs on banks.
While it would be unfair to presume that these changes were entirely a result of that intervention by the foreign banks, it would also be naïve to suggest that their actions played no role in the Polish Parliament’s change of heart. What this means, then, is that foreign actors managed to leverage the tools afforded them under an ISDS regime to influence the direction and shape of Polish legislation – instead of merely receiving compensation post-facto, when their investment had already been affected by those regulatory actions.
This example presents an interesting dilemma: the democratic process in Poland was arguably compromised by the intervention of foreign interests. However, the effects of a predicted 5 billion loss to the banking sector would likely have been so dire that it is easy to argue that the influence of those foreign interests, in this case at least, were a good thing.
The negotiations underpinning the biggest regional trade agreement in history have just concluded yet the landscape for ISDS regimes is still undergoing drastic shifts. The office of the United States Trade Representative assures that the TTP will include investor-State dispute settlement subject to appropriate safeguards that will protect the rights of the TPP countries to regulate in the public interest.
In this case, foreign corporations redirected the Polish State’s actions – but it is not clear whether it was at the expense of Poland’s sovereignty to regulate in the public interest. Regardless, clarity is necessary for an informed discussion to take place. The relationship between foreign investors and host states must be scrutinized to separate theory from practice, to ensure these agreements are entered into eyes-wide-open.
Jessica Rose is an LLM candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.